The following is part of an online conversation I had with Robert Crosby and a few other people about whether true objectivity is possible.
…I don’t see how the ‘fact’ that reality is subjective can be ignored.
I’m not sure who does. I personally believe we live in a participatory universe as, I assume, do many/most others who delve into such matters. For me, that’s not at issue. What is at issue is what that actually means: that nothing objective can be said about what is being observed.
Robert, maybe I misunderstand you, but “nothing objective can be said about what is observed” seems to imply that all observations are subjective, none are objective. If that were true, it undercuts the entire premise of the scientific method. It means that, for example, the familiar physics equation PV=nRT is no more useful or meaningful than me saying that the Rolling Stones are better than the Beatles.
My comment – and view – has to do with problems with self-referencing recursive systems — getting into “GEB” (Godel, Escher, Bach) territory, as articulated by Hofstadter, Maturana, Varela, Bateson, et al. I’m suggesting that what we perceive as “objective reality” is as dependent on the observer as the ‘reality’ of what we call a rainbow. Quoting from Maturana’s REALITY: The Search for Objectivity or the Quest for a Compelling Argument
“From all this it follows that an observer has no operational basis to make any statement or claim about objects, entities or relations as if they existed independently of what he or she does. Furthermore, a community of observers that cannot distinguish in the experience between perception and illusion is, in this respect, in no better position. Their agreement does not give operational validity to a distinction that none of them can make individually. In fact, once the biological condition of the observer is accepted, the assumption that an observer can make any statement about entities that exist independently of what he or she does, that is, in a domain of objective reality, becomes nonsensical or vacuous because there is no operation of the observer that could satisfy it.”
For those interested enough to follow the link and read the paper, apologies in advance for the stilted, hard to understand language. If you can get past it (and also the difficulties in translation from the original Spanish), there is good stuff there. IMO…
More background on Maturana and Varela. I first came across them in the CoEvolution Quarterlies of the mid 70’s. Which prompted me to buy and read their The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Here’s a nice summary, from an Amazon review…
“The authors drill down to molecular biology and then carefully build upward their premise that we construct the worlds we live in out of language. Each of us exists inside a story we tell ourselves about the way the world is, and we are completely contained within that story. In that sense, we interact with other people through the way our stories talk to their stories. And the success of our relationships and the effectiveness with which we act in our world is dependent on how well we can recognize the stories of others and understand the nature of our own story.”
Regarding the Maturana quote – isn’t this simply a description of solipsism?
It’s certainly true that our senses provide us with a very limited, and often distorted, perception of the world. From that standpoint I can recognize Maturana’s statement as true.
But we also have to live and function in the world. Our senses and brains have evolved to provide us with information about the environment that is most important for our survival. For example, evolution hasn’t given us the ability to see radio waves because that portion of the electromagnetic spectrum doesn’t give us much useful information about finding food or avoiding predators.
To live in the world we have to accept the version of the world that our senses provide as a reasonably good representation of reality. And in order to live cooperatively among other humans we need a fair degree of shared understanding of reality.
There is ultimate truth, which none of us are able to perceive or understand in its fullness. In that realm it makes sense to recognize that we have little (perhaps no) objectivity. But then there’s practical life, in which what we call “objectivity” is the shared perception and understanding of reality which, while limited, is essential to survival and very useful for enhancing our lives.
“…isn’t this simply a description of solipsism?”
I don’t think so, any more than is Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. It is simply the recognition that the map is not the territory and that all we have access to is our maps (where by “we” I mean our conscious, rational, “languaging” selves).
“It’s certainly true that our senses provide us with a very limited, and often distorted, perception of the world.”
I agree, but would change “often distorted” to “necessarily distorted”. Which gets back to the central question about the possibility of making objective statements about the nature of reality. (i.e. the Tao).
“But then there’s practical life, in which what we call “objectivity” is the shared perception and understanding of reality which, while limited, is essential to survival and very useful for enhancing our lives.”